Monday, October 24, 2016

Portland Timbers Get Too Damn Drunk Before the Party. Also, the Party (aka, The MLS Postseason Hurrah!)

GUYS! There are better uses for this!

I’m not going to dwell too much on the specifics of the Portland Timbers 4-(WHAT?!)-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps, not least because it doesn’t matter just now. The only thought I really have is, the team needed this. The fan-base might have needed it even more. The Timbers community, as a whole, spent the second half of summer 2016 waiting on a turn-around in the team’s fortunes. Not pining for, but waiting for it – as in, expecting it, knowing it would come. I know this is how fans talk, but still, it didn’t come. Plainly.

Overwhelmed; supine; the sick, limping lamb laying down with an exceedingly hungry, possibly scientifically-bred wolf: quality of phrasing notwithstanding, they all work. No Portland Timber player really shined yesterday, the (arguably) second unquestionably decisive game of the season (the midweek hairball against Deportivo Saprissa being the only truly clear first), and when you can’t show up for games like that, well, things like missing the playoffs happen. Empty-handed seasons happen. If I had to name anyone, I’d go with Darren Mattocks and Jermaine Taylor, each role players for the team, and not stars, but each player’s game let him down in some way (long touches and the usual lack of…finesse, respectively). When the results continued souring down the stretch, the refrain from Timbers Brass spoke to what this team can do when their backs hit the wall, so I guess the question is, their backs are against the wall now, so…when’s that change kick in?

That’s the Timbers 2016 in a nutshell – i.e., the persistence of hope against all available evidence. I haven’t yet reviewed my work for this past season – that’s part of the research of The Big Post-Mortem – but I’ll pick through every (agonizing, misguided) thing I wrote this year soon enough. The dominant idea of the Timbers, though, bought into the Caleb Porter October Miracle, the idea that Ol’ Caleb gets ‘em up for the end of the season, every season. Except this year. That theory made some sense (I checked; see? see? see?), but it omitted a major reality from that myth’s defining year, 2015: Portland turned things around then because they could defend. The Timbers had at least one end of the field figured out in 2015, something that showed not just in their defensive stats, but also in road wins. (7-8-2?! Auggghhh! My heart!)

What changed between this year and last goes deeper than a change in personnel. Well, maybe. It might be closer to argue that the issues with personnel, and even inj…fuck it. Every time I try heading down that road, I get nothing. My point is, it shouldn’t have mattered as much as it did. Wait, no. Should it have mattered as much as it did? Based on Portland’s now complete 2016, and off the top of my head, post-mortem pending, I see three big tasks ahead for the Timbers:

1) Finding one starting central defender to pair with __________?
Yes, that’s every bit as wide open as the statement implies. (So, what’d folks think of Gbenga Arokoyo? Too small a sample? Yeah.)

2) The midfield doesn’t fit together.
Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, and Diego Valeri don’t fit on the pitch, not with everything else they need out there (e.g., a defensive midfielder, and/or wingers, or a second forward). That collection of talent needs something to bring it together…or to push out one of the above. I know my first choice for a push-out, and anyone who reads my drivel has an idea; I’m not that picky when it comes to who goes, or even that someone goes. It’s just…not working, as I see it.

3) Ya need wings to fly, kid.
Lucas Melano is a bust. Period, done: I shall not be moved till he moves me (here, “he” means Melano, not God, which would be “He,” well, at least in most spaces). Darren Mattocks looks like, 1) he wants the job; and 2) has a reasonable chance of taking it; even so, how many dribbles did that guy betray tonight with heavy touches? At least Mattocks was incisive, at least he didn’t fucking miraculously (wait, no, what’s the opposite of a miracle?) top Fanendo Adi’s follow-up-PK-shank from just one week prior, thereby seizing The Miss of 2016 title. That miss becomes the exclamation point behind the question mark posed by Melano’s tenure – e.g., “how the hell are we going to recoup the investment on Melano?” Portland doesn’t necessarily need “wingers,” but I do believe they need a “winger,” or to provide defensive cover for Vytas Andriuskevicius, so that he can take that role. However they do it, whether buying, leveling up, or retraining, Portland needs a reliable scoring threats/mechanisms beyond Adi and Valeri. And they need a player who can take the field at the same time as Valeri and Adi (well, probably not him; regardless, that rules out Jack McInerney).

At any rate, Portland’s out for the season, just one season after winning MLS Cup. They didn’t deserve the playoffs, but they didn’t make them either, so, meh. I view most of the above problems as not just immediate, but as things that would have come next season regardless, a point on which I elaborate later (as in a later post). But enough about us. Or me. Gets fuzzy sometimes….

As implied above, I’ll be researching/writing a (overly) massive, (overly) wrought post-mortem on the Timbers (SAD!) 2016, and sometime in the near future. What I want to do for the rest of this post is talk about the Major League Soccer teams who did make the 2016 playoffs. And I want to go big picture, with broad ideas like how each team is hitting the playoffs, and what that means in their respective match-ups. And that’s how I’ll structure it: next-round (or future) match-up with a blurb on how each team looks heading into it. So, yeah. Let’s do this…

There’s one key to post-season success that, as much as everyone knows it, doesn’t get discussed so much. Here’s that: if you’ve reached this point of your season, and your team doesn’t really know how to score? It’s not necessarily repeating the same set of steps, so much as “we can give it to this guy, and he does stuff.” Failing that, though, you’re probably not gonna do so great. That idea heavily informs what comes below. It also leads to a broad categorization of how I rate each team’s chances in the post-season: are they backing in, rolling in, or…meh?

Eastern Conference
Toronto FC v. Philadelphia Union
Toronto: Meh. Really balanced team, and with special weapons all over (Sebastian Giovinco alone had how many shots; also, this?)…so, why did they go 0-1-4 in the five games prior to this weekend’s narrow win? (And, before you ask who they played, Orlando and Philly). Chicago – again, Chicago - shook ‘em up reasonably, which doesn’t look great against the larger back-drop.
Philly: Backing In. The Union can still get both near and to goal, but it’s one thing to get pulled apart by a genuinely good New York Red Bulls team and another to go 0-5-2 to close out the season. And with the last two at home. Same score-line, too: 2-0. They’re neither doomed nor likely, just more doomed than likely. Likely only matters if that offense can get to goal.
Overall: Toronto’s weapons recommend them, and overwhelmingly, but nothing really recommends Philly, so…

DC United v. Montreal Impact
DC: Rolling in. Kaka beat ‘em damn near al on his lonesome; then again, a clear DC B-Team gave Orlando’s best (most of) a game. The point is, pay attention to their prior run of form – e.g. four straight wins before Sunday’s loss – and wonder what it means that their B-Team did that well. One of the most balanced teams in MLS, and they’re putting it the fuck together. The East end-game is gonna be awesome!!
Montreal: Backing in. Deciding how bad Montreal is requires deciding when to start the study: that’s the difference between 3-6-3 in their last 12, or 5-7-6 in their last 18, and doesn’t that feel better? No, not really, especially not with a crash-and-burn afternoon for their season finale (some results flatter, some results straight-up lie). This team will only ever go as far as Ignacio Piatti, not Didier Drogba, can carry them.
Overall: DC’s game to lose, 100%.

New York Red Bulls v. __________?*
(* I originally feigned disinterest in who the top seeds will play in subsequent rounds; as it turns out, that’s still up in the air. Who knew?)
Red Bulls: Rolling in. Their offense is the prettiest in MLS – their pieces fit, almost with all concerned blindfolded; hence, my personal bandwagon this year – but they’ll only march through the post-season if Damien Perrinelle and Aurelien Collin can carry them; and Robles.
Bottom Line: New York proposes the theory that a team is never out of a game, or a series, so long as it can score.

New York City FC v. ___________?
NYCFC: Rolling in: Apart from an early season gap, NYCFC has steadily picked up results all season. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Li’l NY is legit. Their press freakin’ works, and they’ve got good players all over (see, Matarrita and/or Shelton, just this season), too. They’re the Red Bull’s peer/mirror in every way – e.g. crap defense, but the offense to cover it. Because this.
Bottom Line: See above, only with a thinner material in the glass jaw.

Western Conference
Los Angeles Galaxy v. Real Salt Lake
LA: Meh. Still figuring things out, albeit from a luxury position. If you’ve studied (or, closer, agonized) over the Timbers’ defense all season, watching LA defend makes ya wistful. Daniel Steres, Mitt Romney (OK, it’s Dave Romney): these aren’t household names, but, with Jelle Van Damme threatening them in the lockroom (presumably), they’re solid. Per all the think-pieces about Robbie Keane and Giovani dos Santos not pairing so good, LA’s offense hasn’t been itself this season and Landon Donovan’s return hasn’t changed it yet. That defense, though, buys them plenty of time…but Dallas really gave ‘em a run for it on Sunday.
RSL: Going with Backing in. First, I think they played assuming they’d reach the playoffs (see, starters v. subs); second, who’s their weapon? Who’s the player they can rely on to score? They had systemic problems going into 2016 (and Portland finished lower), but their inability to put real, sustained pressure on the opposition spells trouble for the Utahans.
Overall: LA should win this, but, if a knockout games goes to PKs, I’m voting for this one.

Seattle Sounders v. Sporting Kansas City
Seattle: Rolling in/Meh. Seattle's tricky, in that they're better than backing in, but I also don't see them punching with the rest of the West's best. To their credit, though, when a team does well in MLS, it’s usually not just a DP coming good, but a player that no one expects stepping up as well. Seattle has dealt with losses this year, but they’re big gain (Nicolas Lodeiro) did well, and a guy like Cristian Roldan came good. And Jordan Morris doesn’t suck, gives them a certain way to get at the opposition, etc.
KC: Meh. “No one was crashing on the back side for Kansas City.” That thought excuses failing to look for the best option; it also explains SKC’s ethos. They attack blindfolded, and cough up enough, which (probably) gets at why they’ve won 3 of their last 10 (and two of those came against San Jose. the other against Vancouver (shut up!). Raw athleticism only gets you so far.
Overall: And it’s only so likely to get you past an improved Seattle team on the road. This one feels like Seattle’s to lose.

FC Dallas v. ___________?
Dallas: Rolling in. The story for Dallas will be Mauro Diaz going down at the season’s dying breath, at least, that is, until it isn’t. A Diaz-less Dallas went to LA and found, like, a lot of paths to goal. And that’s gotta be reassuring. Dallas really does present as one of MLS’s best and, if a poll I posted today can be believed, Timbers fans vote them their second-choice winner, and small wonder: I think everyone’s a little enamored of Dallas’ academy system; I’ve certainly never heard a word against.
Bottom Line: Not quite the team to beat, but a team with a great shot of going all the way…and getting cheered if they get there.

Colorado Rapids v. ___________?
Colorado: Meh. The Rapids will be hard to beat, simply. They have several semi-reliable approaches to goal, and the finishing follows reasonably reliably from. In other words, if this team scores…shit. Then again, that’s their weakness (and a weekend draw against Houston, who defends well, doesn’t change that), but the Rapids really are likely as anyone thanks to their formula.
Bottom Line: Covered. Oh, and they’ll be hell in a home-and-home series.

I’m going to close out this section with a footnote. There was a time – and bear with me, I’m going by memory in the interest of getting this posted – when Colorado and Dallas squared off in the playoffs season after season. The Rapids got the better of those exchanges season after season, too, culminating in the Rapids winning MLS Cup back in 2010. They’d make a good contrast this season, too, a sort of battle of light (Dallas) and darkness (Colorado). And that scenario doesn’t look unlikely, either.

And, to end this gloomy bastard of a post on a high note, MLS feels pretty just this season. Based on what I’m seeing in each of the 12 teams left, the right teams should win in each conference’s knockout rounds (e.g. DC over Montreal and Toronto over Philly in the East, and Seattle over KC and LA over RSL in the West), and the teams above them look even better still. The narrative drawn out above for a Dallas v. Colorado conference final reads like a tale from Middle Earth (no, just close your eyes, and think way harder), but think of a New York v. New York conference final? I mean, epic, right?

So, yeah, in spite of the Timbers’ absence, which sucks, but it’s not like the team earned it (in fact, that loss to Vancouver was like wiping one’s ass with a handful of $100 bills), the 2016 playoffs look like a good advertisement for the game/fan experience. And who doesn’t love Fan Experience?

Still, that stupid gap in the middle of the playoffs. Shit, I mean, shit, MLS! Don’t do that. Like ever again. Start the damn season earlier if you have to, but that pause is some seriously pointless fun-sucking.

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